Farm Apprenticeships: Payment Beyond the Dollar | Civil Eats

Farm Apprenticeships: Payment Beyond the Dollar

Recently, the Economist reported on the value, in term of a person’s lifetime wages, of a college degree. The core of the argument was that, over the course of an individual’s life, the expense of a degree will be more than recouped in higher future earnings. We Americans spend astronomical sums on higher education, partly based on the belief that it will come back to us, as the Economist says, in the form of higher-paying and more interesting jobs, and partly because many of us view college as a rite of passage and a font of invaluable social capital.

I will not dispute that my own degree provides me with resources, personal connections, and many cherished memories. What surprises me, however, is that some would consider my farming apprenticeships, which I view as an equally valuable and in some ways more practical educational experience, as mild exploitation. The upside of this popular misconception is that my friends often pick up the tab as, after all, I earn $600 a month, April to October. At the risk of losing my free drinks, however, I’d like to set the record straight.

Farming apprenticeships come in all manner of shapes and sizes—I know young farmers earning more than $1000 a month, not including the free room and board, and I know others who bring in $100 a month and share a bunk room in a trailer. What the good apprenticeships share is a sincere commitment on the part of the farmer to train the next generation of sustainable agrarians. These farmers believe in apprenticeships because they are themselves the products of a good one, or because they wish they had had such an experience, rather than the rough road of trial and error.

As an example, Don, the farmer at Caretaker Farm, where I work, apprenticed at Brookfield Farm under Dan Kaplan. Dan, in turn, apprenticed at Caretaker under the former owners, Sam and Elizabeth Smith. As an apprentice here, I am the beneficiary of the wisdom from three generations of excellent farmers.

These farmers are as much teachers as any professor—I receive feedback on my performance, assignments intended to improve my understanding or skills, and a patient ear for all of my questions. Truly, I ask a lot of questions. As the season winds to a close, we are taking time in our workday for weekly workshops on crop planning, cover cropping, CSA business management, and other topics. And all season long I’ve been provided with a home (the most lovely cabin since Thoreau’s Walden), all of my meals (groceries to supplement farm vegetables are provided, and we cook communally), and a setting that takes my breath away.
On top of all of that, I get paid. When I interned for a non-profit, which provided me with no housing, and no more food than free bagels on Fridays, I earned nothing. Farming seemed like quite the step up to me.

Too often, I think, non-farmers (or parents!) hear an apprentice salary and immediately calculate it into an hourly wage. Their conclusion, then, is that the employer farmers is getting one heck of a deal. When you consider, however, the labor invested each year in training an employee who will leave at then end of the season, the commitment to providing meaningful work, and the promise of an environment open to questions, I begin to wonder, “what kind of altruists are these people?”

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This week CRAFT (yet another perk of my apprenticeship) visited Brookfield Farm, where manager Dan Kaplan explained his farm’s business plan and budget. Labor costs, his own and the apprentices’, make up a full 60% of his budget. “Apprentices are not cheap,” he noted with a laugh, “not if you treat them well.”

To be sure, exploitative apprenticeships exist. I have a friend who, finally tired of a lazy manager who taught him nothing and paid him little more, packed his car and left his apprenticeship mid-season. He was jaded and bitter and convinced that the idea of apprenticeship was all a sham.

But his experience is not the norm, I believe. Seek out an apprenticeship with the same critical eye with which others go college shopping. You’ll end up with a lot less debt, and with luck, a farm of your own some day.

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Mary Kathryn Wyle is the editor of the Young Farmer's Series. She is also an apprentice farmer and full-time good eater. Presently working at Caretaker Farm in Massachusetts, she also blogs about her agricultural and gastronomic adventures on her Read more >

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  1. Donald
    i agree with you to a certain extent. i've partaken in two internship/apprenticeship positions and have thought much about the learning experiences and compensation. i believe in the model for it cuts down on a major cost of farming, labor, thus allowing prices to be lower thus allowing wholesome products to be more readily available to lower income families which is the first and foremost importance to me. during my first internship i went through a two week period dwelling on the hours worked, the quality of work i provided, and what i received in compensation. i came to terms and after the season came to realize that yes, it was worth the monetary sacrifice to partake in this internship. but here are some other thoughts. agriculture is a learning experience in and of itself regardless of if you are hourly help or an intern. yes the benefits of an internship includes housing on the farm, thus a greater connection to the enterprise, food, lodging and a commitment from the farm owner to teach. but it's a risk and to a certain extent exclusive. here's why. for an adult with even a small debt such as myself finds it to be a possible risk. a majority of my monthly stipend of seven hundred dollars went to paying off bills i had accumulated while
    'finding myself' and realizing that i want to farm. some, who may possess a drive and great work ethics may not be willing to take such a risk. also, as you know, the work is strenuous and the hours are long which could lead some to think in terms of self worth and what have you. i believe that the only way to be a good farmer is to intern or apprentice. you can't learn good work ethics and everything else that accompanies farming in the realm of academia but i believe compensation should be a bit more so's that an air of exploitation does not exist. if i'm not mistaken little seeds garden in columbia county pays minimum wage by the hour and i find this to be the perfect example. they also provide housing and food i do believe. point being, for farming to be appealing to younger generations, and older, we need to make apprenticeships/internships more viable for individuals to understand self worth. heck, my boss last year cut herself a monthly paycheck based on sales and the amount of hours she put in and i find this to be rather awesome. she also sent me off at the end of the season by instructing me to look for internships/apprenticeships that pay a bit more because they are the more successful. i don't know if that is the case because i currently find myself in a farm manager position. regardless, when i start my own farm i will provide housing, food, and an hourly wage and i'm willing to make sacrifices to do so. thanks for the post! ps, my fellow intern last year withdrew her 401k to subsidize the stipend because living in boulder can be expensive.
  2. Art
    My wife and I came to Hawaii 2 years ago to apprentice on a small subsistence farm. There was no stipend, or meal plans. We have our own cabin, and separate sleep space, and a few acres of autonomy. Solar hot water, and power, rain water catchment, and as rustic as you can get. We love it... I have a hard time imagining myself ever going back to urban life, with bills and bosses. We have been welcomed to stay as long as we like. I plan on doing this in Indonesia once we get our fill of Hawaii.
  3. Donald
    I must apologize for my previous post. Poor grammar and open ended topics. What I was trying to express was that I believe in the internship/apprenticeship model for teaching our next generation of farmers. Whenever I do start my own operation I will rely whole heartedly on interns or apprentices for labor because, having worked this season on a farm with hourly labor, I have come to the conclusion that interns or apprentices are more valuable because they care and want to learn and want to work hard. That's exactly how I was in both of my internship and apprenticeship. It isn't just a job but a career choice, a lifestyle choice. I just think that more monetary compensation should accompany the learning aspect. Thanks!
  4. fog
    maybe someone who has experienced an internship can address this concern of mine:

    when you are relying on your employer for lodging and food, and you are also working with them, doesn't being with them all the time begin to be tiring? And what if you don't get along, or worse, they are taking advantage of you.

    I know that you always can just leave if it is really bad, but that isn't as simple as it sounds, if you move out of your apartment at the beginning of the summer.

    so many things about working on an organic farm sound great but the living and eating together part makes me fearful.
  5. Donald
    i am more than happy to comment on this topic. So with my first internship last season we all lived on the farm, my fellow intern and I in yomes, farm owners in the house maybe 50 yards from our yomes, and my field manager in a little apartment on the neighboring bit of property. we never addressed the topic of personal space and time it just kind of happened naturally, our respect for each others needs. We would get together for an occasional dinner or lunch but we respected each others personal life. It was weird how it worked out , organically if you will. We were just so indirectly in tune with each others needs that we never really encroached. It was a very positive experience. Living and working together we needed clear communication about what was going on within us which was an amazing experience and I most certainly grew from the experience and created lasting bonds with my fellow intern, field manager, and farm owners.

    Now my second apprenticeship which i interned right after the first was a bit different. I never really spent time with anyone other than the time spent together while we milked. I focused primarily on animal husbandry, fencing, and tractor work while everyone else partook in the horticultural demands. The individual who i was supposed to be apprenticing, the farm consultant, was opposed to open communication for some reason thus I never really felt like a positive environment existed for me to express my discontent. Unhealthy and bizarre indeed. Bonds were not really made because our focuses were disconnected. As for the living situation all of us who resided on the farm rarely interacted. I would hang out with the farm owner and have great discussions but only a handful of times would i have dinner with the family.

    Living and working together can either be a blessing or not. I think it's the farm owner's responsibility to define the atmosphere, be it daily lunches or opening up their personal space to the interns. Regardless communication is so valuable in these situations. Everyone needs to express their demands so we are all on same page. A healthy environment needs to exist for concerns or praises or ideas to be expressed. I walked away from both experiences with valuable information about human nature and the way individuals interact. It just has to be a right fit and farmer's/owners who have partaken in internships or apprenticeships have a greater understanding of the dynamics of living and working together in my opinion. Thanks!
  6. How do you find apprentices ? The colleges?

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